Ask Amma

Weaning … and Free Learning

In How on 27 October 2011 at 3:00 am

My weaning story, originally titled “Weaning: Fountain of Free Learning,” was edited and published in Breastfeeding Today, October 2011 here on page 14. I think they did a decent job condensing.  Here is what I wrote in 2009:

Weaning: Fountain of Free Learning

Weaning: Fountain of Free Learning

     We often hear that nursing a baby provides not only food but also love, comfort and immunity.  As a mother, I found it was all this and more.  I discovered breastfeeding to be a quintessential experience of free learning, right up to and including child-led graduating.   Natural, free, unscheduled, ungraded, untested and self-guided, the experience of breastfeeding gives the child far more than nutrition or even the oft-remarked “brain-boosting DHA.”  Reflecting back on nursing my daughter, I find that it gave her precious time, space and context to learn numerous life skills – not only eating, but also ways to understand her body, her mind and the world around her.  No one could give her a certificate that she had learned.  She moved on when she was ready.

*   *   *   *  *

It is over year since my daughter’s last breastfeeding.  She weaned over a period of 2-3 months, as the gaps between nursings became longer and more frequent … and then I realized it was no longer a gap.  It was all.  One June day when I first noticed a gap of more than a week, I couldn’t resist asking my daughter about it, though I was not sure if I was “supposed” to bring it up at all.  She simply said, “I don’t need it anymore.”  (She did nurse a few more times in July and August.)  My husband gasped, “what?  but you are supposed to have ampa (short for amma-palu, which in Telugu means mama-milk).”  They both giggled.

At the time I hardly talked to anyone about it. I have always been vocal about breastfeeding, calmly answering people who were shocked to see me breastfeed and NIP (nurse-in-public) well past the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum of 2 years.  Though I was bursting with it, what time or place to bring up the story?  Most of my family and friends might not have known she was “still” nursing, or even thought about it.   Without planning to, I did pour out to one friend, a fleet-footed newlywed engineering consultant in Washington, DC, whose views on breastfeeding or motherhood I knew not in the slightest.   She listened.   We laughed through moist eyes.   Later one day, entirely by luck, I found myself in the library on the day of our monthly La Leche League meeting.  I shared my experience.  Recently I again attended LLL after more than a year’s gap and a couple of moms remembered my story.  They had understood (of course).

They encouraged me to “write it down.”  And so here it is.

I always knew that I would breastfeed.  My mother was in La Leche League when my little sister was born and I went to my first LLL meeting  (as an adult) while I was pregnant. Though we had difficulties in the beginning, we got established after a few days and nursing was smooth after that.   There were ups and downs, of course.  At nine months my daughter loved idlis (steamed rice-and-bean cakes) so much I worried that she was not nursing enough.  At 15 months there was a time when she did not nurse for more than 24 hours and I worried because I knew that was too early to wean.  At 22 months she was nursing like a baby, waking up every 2 hours at night and all.  (Soon after the nursing spurt she had a growth spurt.)  Through all these ups and downs, I never lost confidence in nursing; moreover I had terrific support from mothering.com/discussions and La Leche League online community forums, even though I knew few nursing moms in real life.

When my daughter was three I observed that she was nursing 3-6 times / day.  To sleep, to wake up, once in the middle, and often a couple of times during the day.  I remember noting that it did not seem to be tapering off in any way.  Could this actually end?

When she was 3 ½, I was most grateful that she was nursing.  That winter she got sick three times in three different places  – Delhi, Bombay, and Rasuru (Orissa), each time with high fever, and once with measles.  Each time she nursed right through her illnesses.  Though she was sick and needed to direct all her energy towards healing, she was not uncomfortable.  Through breastfeeding, mostly in her sleep, she was getting plenty of fluids, rest and nutrients.   She certainly couldn’t keep any food down (we tried that too).

Nursing helped our daughter to develop healthy eating habits.  She ate on her own, right from her introduction to ragi (millet) at 6 months, and soft fruits like banana and sapota, soft vegetables like peas, sweet potatoes, plantain, beets, and onwards to grains, beans, and beyond.  She ate whole grains from the beginning – whole millet, brown rice, whole wheat bread, mung and urad dal were also unpeeled.   We simply served her food and she ate as much as she wanted, with her own hand.  We usually ate together.  If she needed more time she would eat by herself as I took care of other work.  Or read a book.  Eating was always a happy and relaxed experience; never a chore, either for her or for us.  Through mother’s milk she became familiar with the diverse tastes of all that I ate; I think that served as a preview to whet her appetite for the real thing. Since she was breastfeeding I knew she was getting her nutrition so it did not matter how much solid food she ate.  With this freedom she embraced, at her own pace, the array of whole, natural foods we prepared.

Weaning from the breast signified not only a transition from one source of food to another, but also a transition in the way my daughter understood herself and dealt with the world. The basic ability to gauge one’s own hunger and satiety, cultivated at the breast, will serve one well at the plate.  Over the years I came to recognize that breastfeeding offers so much more than nutrition.  It offers immunity not only to germs but also to excessive stimuli from the environment.  It nurtures one’s sense of wholeness, it is comfort after a fall or stress, and of course, it is a warm cozy place to let down one’s guard and sleep.  The world offers alternatives for all of these functions, and the child who learns to avail these at her own pace will utilize them wisely.

Because breastfeeding often required me to take my daughter to work, it allowed her to be in interesting environments observing adults busy in various activities.   Also, it gave adults a chance to share time and space with a child and accept a nursing toddler as normal.  One small step towards building our continuum society.

Around age four, I again noticed that she was nursing nearly every night and sometimes during the day as well.  I wondered how long she would nurse, but did little more than wonder.  Once when she skipped a day I spent hours writing in my journal.  What does this mean?  But the next day she was back; meaning was forgotten.

It started soon after her fifth birthday.  Till then she was going strong with no signs of tapering off.  Two weeks later however, I observed that she’d skipped several days.  Was I ready for this?  I couldn’t say she was too young.  She was even past the oft-quoted “worldwide average” of 4.2 years.  So what was I missing?

Wasn’t I now supposed to be celebrating – increased wardrobe choice, one less mile to go before I sleep?  Sure, there would be plenty of days ahead to enjoy that.  Now I was immersed in a rush of feelings, and savoring that rush.   It passes all too quickly.

The author nursing her daughter at the grand canyon, Arizona.

The author nursing her daughter while on a hike.

Aravinda Pillalamarri, 2009

 
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  2. So so beautiful! Thanks for sharing !

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  7. Beautiful….what a reassurance it is that my daughter is going the right way…I am surrounded by people who are discouraging me from feeding her at the age of three…breastfeeding is so much more than just food to fill up tiny tummies of our babies….its warmth and security and in heart of my hearts I know my lil one will stop when she is ready…amazing read….

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    • Glad you are reassured. We learn so much when we listen to our children. Your daughter has a strong advocate to defend her from flawed albeit well-meant advice.

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